THE surprise success of Stockton in winning the 2013 title signalled a significant shift away in the normal pecking order in the Dukes North East Premier League Premier Division, and there could well be another new name knocking on the championship door this summer.
After their most successful season ever, Hetton Lyons look poised to take another giant stride forward when the new campaign gets underway this weekend.
The Lyons’ first foray into the Premier League jungle was in 2006, but they suffered an immediate relegation.
After battling their way back in 2010, consolidation at the higher level was followed by gradually improving performances, and last year’s third-place finish represented their best so far.
And after an impressive recruitment programme over the winter months, they are now many people’s favourites to go all the way to the top.
Skipper Shaun Birbeck will once again have Lal Kumar to call upon. The Pakistani all-rounder enjoyed a fine debut season for the Lyons in 2013 and should have arrived in the country in time for tomorrow’s opener against Chester-le-Street at Ropery Lane.
Ryan Pringle continues as Hetton’s Durham player, and, while his growing stature within the County set-up may limit his club appearances,he has proven potential to provide match winning displays on the occasions he does turn out.
With former Durham batsman Gary Scott free from injury, and the young legs of Jonny Malkin, Jarvis Clay and Sean Tindale supplementing the big guns, the basis of the squad is already solid.
However, the new acquisitions look to have added the extra dimension that makes them genuine championship challengers.
Top of the newcomers list is Allan Worthy. After beginning his cricketing career at neighbours South Hetton, Worthy has built up a record Premier League runs aggregate of 8,571, and, after deciding on a new challenge, he has brought two of his former Blaydon colleagues along for the ride – seamer Martin Pollard and leggie Chris Varley.
With left-armer John Hutton also coming in from South Shields, Lyons look set to roar this summer.
And what better way to test their title credentials than an opener against Chester-le-Street.
The Cestrians slipped from their own high league standards to finish a modest sixth in 2013, but they have kept faith with more or less the same squad led by John Coxon.
Max Morley is the Durham interest, and spinner David Foster, who finished third in the league bowling averages last time out, has returned to Ropery Lane. Their only departure is Jon Kean.
Sunderland’s ninth-place finish last term did not come as too much of a surprise as they had resigned themselves to a season of transition.
But skipper Dan Shurben believes the Ashbrooke men have made some excellent signings in the shape of Chris Watson and Chris Dorothy from South Shields, Dan Wilkinson from Barnard Castle and Chris Peareth, the former Brandon and Evenwood player.
Also back at the club is Imran Shah, after a spell playing in Cambridge.
The Durham contracted players are Chris Rushworth and Usman Arshad, but, with both very much in the County’s first-team planning, their appearances are likely to be restricted.
The one departure from Ashbrooke is Arsalan Rahim, who has moved to Gateshead Fell, but perhaps the biggest gap to fill is that of Kieran Waterson who will miss the whole season as he awaits imminent surgery on a hip injury.
Nowhere is the new season sense of anticipation and excitement more acute than at Whitburn following their dramatic promotion in the dying moments of the 2013 campaign.
The fixture planners have thrown them straight into the Premier Division cauldron by sending them to the home of the reigning champions, Stockton, on the opening day.
First Division itle-winning skipper Andy Turns is once again in charge, and he has a settled squad at his disposal headed by Stuart Walker, who is back for his fifth year with the Villagers.
Walker was the only man in either division to top 1,000 runs last summer, and set the First Division’s new individual innings marker of 184 along the way.
Walker will have exciting young prospect Paul Coughlin offering support, the former Eppleton lad already making an impression in the Durham set-up.
Alongside him will be 21-year-old Aussie Scott Condy, a medium-fast bowler who will play as an overseas amateur.
Stockton, with former Sunderland man Chris Hooker returning to his home club, have an otherwise unchanged squad and will therefore present a real challenge to the newcomers.
Tynemouth begin with a home match against Durham Academy, and they will have South African Ruhan Pretorius back in harness after his successful debut campaign last summer.
With senior Academy player Andrew Ireland boosting a more or less unchanged Preston Avenue line-up, skipper Ben Debnam feels his Tynemouth team will be a tough proposition for anyone.
Matty Muchall was an integral part of South Shields, but following their relegation he has moved on to Benwell Hill to continue playing at the top level.
He is joined by other new faces, Rammy and Jassy Singh, and Richard Coughtrie. Going in the opposite direction out of Denton Bank are Ali Maiden, Dave Rutherford, Nick Jones and Jonny Craigs.
Rutherford and Craigs have joined forces with South North, who also have the influential Karl Turner on board, while the Singhs’ move to the Hill has been compensated for by Gateshead Fell through the signing of James Sneller, Richard Smith, Arsalan Rahim and James Hill.
Elsewhere, the overseas interest at Newcastle comes in the shape of New Zealander Ben Cant, and it will be a new-look squad with Graham Clark as their Durham player, and new signings in the shape of Gary Johnson (Lintz), Oli McGee (Tynemouth), Tom Hughes (South North) and student Alastair Shields.
Meanwhile, in a bid to plug the gap left by the trio of departures to Hetton Lyons, Blaydon have taken on Kiwi Ken McClure, as well as Durham’s Ryan Buckley, and they also have Paul Underwood back in the fold after six seasons at Lanchester.